Monday, April 30, 2012

Praying For Survival: The Hassidization of Litvaks

Lately, with a number of elderly Haredi Gedolim being very sick, there has been many people in the Haredi community calling upon the community to pray for their health. Previously, I have discussed whether this is as much of a life-changing crisis as some are describing it, but in this post I want to discuss a different point. I was somewhat taken aback to see that much of the talk about the need to pray for the health of the Gedolim asserts that the reason why it is so important is that the Gedolim are needed in order to pray for our own survival.

Let's leave aside, for now, the question of whether this makes the entire effort somewhat selfish. I am more intrigued by the theological concept that is implicitly being presented here. Instead of us praying for our survival, we are better off simply praying for the Gedolims' survival. The Gedolim are assumed to be better at praying for our survival than we are, and thus, to the extent that our prayers are effective, they are best directed towards the health of the Gedolim, rather than directed towards the things that we want the Gedolim to pray for.

Now, this seems to be consistent with Chassidic thought. In Chassidic circles, it is only the Admor that has a significant connection to God. Everyone else connects to God via the Admor - eating his shirayim, etc. But is it consistent with Litvishe thought? My impression is that Litvaks had traditionally subscribed to קרוב ה' לכל קוראיו - "God is close to all that call upon Him." You don't pray for someone else to be able to pray for you - you just pray yourself for the things that you need. Am I wrong?

(On another note, I still have an opening in my schedule for Shabbos July 21 in the NY/ NJ region and Shabbos August 11 in LA - please write if you want to schedule a scholar-in-residence weekend.)


  1. Come on, is this really so shocking?Chassidim and Litvaks now intermarry, learn in the same yeshivot, and perhaps most significantly, vote for the same political parties.

    This is hardly the first, or most acute example of the hassidization of litvaks (and one could find many examples of litvakation of hassidim as well).

  2. This has been commented on elsewhere. Over the last several generations there has been a narrowing of the gap between the Misnagdim and the Chasidim.
    On the Chasidish side, the emphasis on learning has increased. On the Misnagdish side, "Gedolim" are now treated like Rebbes, complete with the Rebbe-worship that the Gra and his followers found so objectionable.
    Ultimately the two groups will be indistinguishable except for the outfits they wear.

  3. My concern isn't specifically about this practice spreading to Litvaks, but on the practice in general. Tom me, it comes a little to close to praying to a figure other than God. I'm not sure how even Chasidim justify that.

  4. I have been a baal teshuva since 1997. I still don't see any important differences between Litvaks and Chassidim except the dress, names (like Modcha instead of Mordechai), and language (Chassidim tend to speak Yiddish as a first language). Of course dress, names, and language was the only difference between the Mitzrim and the bnei Israel in Egypt, so maybe it is important.

  5. I get the gist of what you're saying, but I think you're going too far when you explain the motivation as, "Instead of us praying for our survival, we are better off simply praying for the Gedolims' survival." The correct understanding is not that it's a replacement of our own tefillos in favor of tefillos for the health of the Gedolim. It's just that there's a recognition that in a meritocracy, the Gedolims' tefillos are likely to carry more weight, and hence we are better off having them davening for us than not davening for us. But it hardly means that we no longer daven on our own behalf. We can daven for both, surely.

  6. Reb Natan,

    You've said in the past that when someone posts something and adds an afterthought, the afterthought was really the reason for the post.

    So I assume the purpose of this post then is to garner some speaking engagements? :-)

  7. lol. That was when people give two reasons for something.

  8. Is the debate between rationalism and it's opposite (whatever that is) a re-enactment of the debate between chassidim and misnagdim?

    Can you change the proof that we're not robots eg. give us a sum to do. I keep on misreading the words.

  9. The slow evolution of Litvaks into Chassidim has been happening since at least the mid to end of the 19th century. It all stems from the yeshivah movement. When the position of Rosh Yeshivah became a dynastic position (something to be pased on from fathter to son in law)it was the beginning of the end.

    The hero-worship thing began post WWII, when the gap between the old world Europeans and the new world Americans was just enormous. Literally like Superman, the surviving Roshei Yeshivah were from a destroyed world, and were totally different than the young bachurim they had in their charge. Post WWII was also a time of enthusiam and activism. It was natural that a group like Agudath Israel of America would arise to preach the doctrine of daas torah, and that many bachrum, already taught to believe pretty much anything, would accept it.

    A lot of this is quietly dying. There's a thousand rosh yeshivahs out there, and tens of thousands of rosh koillel and avreichim. Every one of these people grew up playing the same sports and (more or less) watching the same TV as you did. Godol worship cant survive in such conditions.

    Also orthodox Jewry has been a victim of its own success. Its' easy to be a Godol when the rest of the citizenry are pretty much ignorant. But when everyone has gone to yeshivah, and everyone is learning shas, and everyone is a rabbi - well, the hero worship is pretty much dead at that point.

    A rationalist would take that last step even further, and say that education has taught us that forget about contemporary Gedolim, even chazal and rishonim were ordinary men, with the same petty faults and fights that we have today. Nothing changes. That's why godol worship was only built to last the immediate post WWII generations, and it is quickly dying a slow death.


  10. I wonder what the proportionality is according to most Hassidic thought in terms of how much of a connection the individual has to G-d as compared to the Tzaddiq. Is it really so that the individual has no significant connection according to normative hassiduth or is it just that the connection to the Tzadddiq gives one a significantly greater connection? Any thoughts with sources anyone?

    Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-RothkoffR. Hershel Shachter is Right--There are no Honest Experts Today

    R' Rakeffet sopmewhere in here makes the statement that the chassidim have won.

    R'DD says :the Gedolims' tefillos are likely to carry more weight.

    please expand on this thought. Would you say if you have 10 minutes you'd be better off getting a gadol who doesn't know you to pray for you, or to try to pray for yourself and make a connection with HKB"H.
    Joel Rich

  12. Not news to me by any means…

  13. Garnel writes: "...complete with the Rebbe-worship..."

    Worship is a very loaded word. It really ought to be defined carefully.

  14. What about the (to me) puzzling question of why aren't the (superior) tefilos of the 'Gedolim' adequate for their own health?

  15. I'm pretty sure this is a version of: המתפלל על חברו נענה תחילה

  16. Sounds like it would be related to the famous "machnisei rachamim" controversy.

  17. I believe you post and distinction is an oversimplification. I do not have my references with me but as I recall Halachah mandates going to a talmid chacham to daven for you when you are ill. This is not a "chasidic" idea. Whether it has been over emphasized by various quarters to the exclusion other important ideas may be a worthy discussion but by this post you are taking advantage of division in the traditional community to promote your minimalist vision of supernaturalism in Judaism.

  18. At least in the States, most "Litvaks" are really of Hungarian Chassidish origin. The term "Yeshivish" is more appropriate.

  19. The way this has always been explained to me, is that "the world continues to exist because of a select few individuals."

    I've never heard it said that these people's prayers are more important. But rather their mitzvot are. If X stopped learning, or if X stopped doing some mitzvah, then the world would come to an end.

    It seems to me that now the only mitzvah the Gedolim can be said to be doing is "tefilot".

    I do think you are wrong on the theological side of things though. I don't think it's the case that they believe that our tefilot can't save us, it's that we don't do enough mitzvot to warrant keeping the world in existence and thus our survival. The gedolim of the generation, would thus have that merit to keep the world going.

    Once the world is guaranteed it's survival, then you can pray for the things you need to pray for.

  20. According to the "Anglo-EU Translation guide" making the rounds of the internet, in Brit-speak, "Oh, incidentally" means "the primary purpose of our discussion is..."

  21. In response to HaRazieli's question (he probably is familiar with the sources anyway): In Tanya, Chapter 42, the Ba'al HaTanya cites the Gemara (Megillah 25b) which says that fear of Hashem was for Moshe Rabbenu "a small matter". The Ba'al HaTanya asks, how can this help us, if fear of Hashem is something Hashem demands of us?
    Two answers are given: 1) Moshe Rabbenu was "the faithful shepherd", providing each person with the ability to know Hashem, 2) the soul of Moshe Rabbenu is linked to the Sages of each generation, enabling them to teach the populace how to know Hashem and thus achieve proper fear of Hashem.
    Tanya then goes on to explain how does a person arouse feelings of fear and love of Hashem through his own introspection. (Chabad chassidus purports to emphasize how a person is to arouse these feelings by his own efforts, not so much through the emunah in the Tzaddik. The role of the Tzaddik as a counselor and mentor is still a necessity.)
    Also noteworthy is Chapter 2 in Tanya, where the scholars are called "the heads/leaders of the multitudes of Israel", linking to the rest of Israel, just as the rest of the limbs are linked to a person's brain.

  22. I don't understand this post at all. Are you saying it's wrong to daven for talmidei chachomim who are ill??? Why can't you daven for them and yourself?

    I know you like to attack most things chareidim do but this is ridiculous.

  23. Correct, you don't understand this post at all!

  24. Maybe the excess of prayer isn't so much about keeping the gedolim alive (anyone sane knows that nobody stays with us forever), but more about avoiding the wars that may come for succession?

  25. Menachum I think he is trying to point out a change in litvish theology in the past 100 years where the movement has been hijacked, and trying to connect chasidem to heavily influencing that change (I also believe it came from believing that going overboard with stringency is better than the middle road the middle road has always been the traditional litvish mentality up until recently.

  26. I was a little surprised to read that the Rebbe acts as a channel to H' in Chassidic thought. I had heard this over the years from Misnagdic individuals - generally as a means to imply that Chassidism isn't really normative Judaism.

    On the other hand, the Rebbe in the shul in which I daven told a story of the Ba'al Shem Tov in which he noted that his tefillos suffered in the most recent session because his followers, expecting him to "stand" a long Shemonah Esreh, had gone off to do other things, returning when they expected him to begin Chazaras haShatz. Due to this lack of support from his kehilla, the Besh"t was unable to conduct his usual lofty tefillah.

    To me, this implies that the Rebbe needs his followers. One may be able to argue that the Rebbe provides a focal point for his "kreiz"'s Avodas H'; or that the Rebbe may have earned some special insight into the needs and capabilities of his followers. Certainly he offers an example to emulate. But I think it difficult to argue that he is the gatewayto H'.

  27. Rav Slifkin, your generalization about chassidim is not entirely accurate. In Breslov chassidut, for example, everyone is urged to pray for everything they need (and even the entire world -- see here at #9 Even if there are special beliefs about the importance of the tzaddik, this does not mean that the individual person's prayer is not important or that any individual cannot develop a strong connection to Hashem -- indeed, there is a belief that anyone can achieve the level of a tzaddik through prayer and other efforts. (See id. # 65; see generally

    The great Litvak gadol the Chafetz Chaim also thought it was very important for the average individual to pray for everything, and that if we did this it would basically solve all the problems of the Jewish people:

    “In summation, all the many calamities that come on us and that we are not saved from them is because we are not screaming and outpouring in prayer over them. If we would pray and would pour out before HaKadosh Baruch Hu, certainly our prayers and supplications would not return empty. And it’s not enough for a person to pray the shemonei esrei three times a day, rather a few times per day, a person needs to pour out prayers and supplications in solitude, in his house, from the depths of his heart. Because the three prayers (shemonei esrei) are already fixed in his mouth and he doesn’t take them to heart so much. But if a person would contemplate in solitude and make a cheshbon hanefesh on his personal situation, his great poverty and his many toils, and for all this to live on crusty bread and water, then he will pour out his heart like water in front of Hashem, yisborach, and the prayer will go out with deep kavana and with a broken heart and a lowly spirit. A prayer like this will certainly not return empty. And then when his soul is bitter on him, on his situation and his weak standing, and he drops supplications before HaKadosh Baruch Hu, he should also remember the great pain of Hashem yisborach, because he also, so to speak, does not have rest. In all our suffering He suffers…” (Chafetz Chaim – Likutei Amarim ch.11)

    Even if regular people's prayers are important, there is a basis for the idea that great people's prayers are better:

    "R. Phinehas b. Hama gave the following exposition: Whosoever has a sick person in his house should go to a Sage who will invoke [heavenly] mercy for him; as it is said: The wrath of a king is as messengers of death,' but a wise man will pacify it" (Bava Batra 116a).

    This said, I believe people (rationalists included!) should be encouraged to take a significant amount of time to pray in their own words. This is rarely emphasized but it is very important, given how easy it is to lack kavanah in the required prayers.

  28. Another "Hassidization" of the Litvak world is the widespread use of segulot - whether the newly discovered 40-day recital of Perek Shira or the purchase of "holy relics" such as wine from R Chaim Kanievsky's siyum or a shrivelled leaf from his hoshanos, laminated for posterity.

  29. So i guess Admor is yiddish for holy see?

  30. "Admor" stands for "ADoneinu, MOreinu, Rabeinu".


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